South Korea asks for trust; North agrees, lets families have reunions

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Story highlights

  • U.N. leader urges countries to advance high-level engagement
  • Both sides will cut the harsh rhetoric, a South Korean official says
  • South Korea asked the North for trust in handling a poignant issue that divides them
  • The North agreed, and made a gesture of good will to back it up

In stark contrast to the bellicose gesturing that has haunted relations in the recent past, North and South Korea took conciliatory steps in each other's direction Friday.

Both sides will halt the harsh rhetoric, they agreed at a bilateral meeting on the heavily militarized border that divides them.

They hope that this and other agreements will serve to build trust between Pyongyang and Seoul, Kim Kyou-Hyun, a high South Korean security official, said after the meeting wrapped up.

Pyongyang has been particularly irked by joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, and would like them to cease.

The next ones are scheduled for later this month, and the North views them as a prelude to an invasion. Last year, Pyongyang's threatening rhetoric reached alarming levels during the exercises, heightening tensions in the region.

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Last week, the North threatened that if February's maneuvers went forward, it would back out of planned visits between members of Korean families separated from one another since the civil war in the 1950s.

But, on Friday, they agreed to let them go forward.

The reunions of about 200 people -- 100 from each country -- are scheduled to take place between February 20 and 25 at a resort on the North's side of the border.

They coincide with the planned military exercises.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the countries to build on the momentum that will be generated by their agreement to hold family reunions.

"Tension between the two Koreas has been high and inter-Korean relations have remained strained for far too long. As such, this important development is a step in the right direction," Ban said in a statement Friday.

He encouraged both sides to continue high-level engagement and take further steps to build confidence and trust.

Trust us

So far, South Korea and the United States have rejected the North's calls for this year's joint drills to be called off.

In September, North Korea canceled a previous round of family reunions with only a few days' notice, accusing Seoul of souring ties between the two countries.

Officials from the North told the delegation from the South on Friday that it feels the military exercises and the humanitarian issue are connected, Kim said.

The South rejected that connection in principle but asked the North for its trust in working out tensions over the joint military exercises.

The North agreed to this. Both sides also decided to hold another meeting at a future date, Kim said.

The current talks at the Panmunjom Peace House came at the suggestion of the North and took place Wednesday and Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Seoul on Thursday, where he met with South Korea's President Park Geun-hye.

He reiterated Washington's stance that the United States will not accept a nuclear armed North Korea and criticized a lack of progress by Pyongyang on this issue.

Kerry visited Beijing on Friday, in part to talk with Chinese leaders about their influence over Pyongyang.

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